Lone Wolf Sullivan is a writer, songwriter, and studio musician.

Wednesday, June 03, 2009

Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? (1962) * * *

The film starts in 1917 with a lengthy prologue to introduce 6 year-old Baby Jane Hudson (Julie Allred), a very successful vaudeville performer, and her older sister Blanche (Gina Gillespie), who remains in her shadow. Jane, "the diminutive dancing Duse", is extremely popular with the audiences and spoiled by her father Ray (Dave Willock) and mother Cora (Ann Barton). Blanche resents this, but out of consideration for their mother keeps her feelings buried.

In a second prologue set in 1935, Jane (Bette Davis) has faded into obscurity while Blanche (Joan Crawford) has become a beautiful famous movie star. However, Blanche is loyal and insists that for every picture she makes, Jane must star in one of her own. But Jane's "cuteness" is now grotesque, so her movies flop. One night after a party where Jane had been embarassingly drunk, one of the sisters walks forward to open the gate to the driveway of the Hudson mansion. We see the other sister put her foot on the gas and crash the car into the gate. When Blanche is found unconscious in the wrecked car, Jane is missing. When she is located uninjured, she is unable to explain what had happened.

The film fast forwards to the present day, and Blanche is paralyzed from the accident, with Jane apparently the one responsible. The two sisters have become recluses in their decaying mansion, where Jane cares for Blanche. Their isolation is broken only by the weekly visits of cleaning woman Elvira Stitt (Maidie Norman) and the occasional efforts of next door neighbor Mrs. Bates (Anna Lee) to meet Blanche--attempts which are always thwarted by Jane. She is now a deranged alcoholic, and vengefully bitter and jealous toward her wheelchair-bound sister secluded in an upstairs bedroom. Hatred increases when a local TV network airs a marathon tribute to Blanche Hudson movies, and Jane learns that Blanche is planning to sell the mansion, move in with Elvira, and put her in a convalescent home. Jane holds her prisoner and increases her sadistic verbal, emotional, and physical abuse. She even kills Blanche's pet parakeet and serves it to her sister on her dinner plate. Later she pulls the same gruesome prank with a dead rat for "din-din".

Jane: It's just that nosy Mrs. Bates going on about your picture last night.
Blanche: Oh, really, did she like it?
Jane: (imitating Blanche's voice) Oh, really, did she like it?... She liked it!

Elvira Stitt: (shocked at some obscenities Jane has scrawled) I can't remember the last time I saw words like that written down!

Blanche: You wouldn't be able to do these awful things to me if I wasn't in this chair.
Jane: But ya aah Blanche, ya aah in that chair!

Jane decides to stage a show-business comeback and hires shiftless pianist Edwin Flagg (Victor Buono) to accompany her. Although he immediately realizes she has no talent, he goes along with her plan for the money. Jane garishly dresses up as a little girl as she is being coached by Edwin Flagg for an improbable comeback. She croaks, "I've Written a Letter to Daddy":

"I've written a letter to Daddy
His address is Heaven above
I've written "Dear Daddy, we miss you
And wish you were with us to love"
Instead of a stamp I put kisses
The postman says that's best to do
I've written a letter to Daddy
Saying "I love you"
Now when I'm very good, and do as I am told
I'm Mama's little angel and Papa says I'm good as gold
Now when I'm very bad and answer back and sass
Then I'm Mama's little devil, and Papa says I've got the brass
Now I wish that you would tell me
Cos I'm much too young to know..."

Jane: You certainly can play, can't you?
Edwin Flagg: And you certainly can sing!

Jane becomes increasingly more vicious, thwarts Blanche's efforts to contact Mrs. Bates, who is unaware of Blanche's desperate predicament. When Blanche manages to climb down the stairs and telephone her doctor for help, Jane comes home, finds her on the phone, and violently beats her. She gags and ties up Blanche in her bedroom. Impersonating her sister on the phone, Jane manages to stop the doctor's planned visit to the house. Jane then fires Elvira without good reason. Uneasy about the situation at the house, Elvira returns while Jane is out and finds the bound and gagged Blanche. As she attempts to free Blanche, Jane arrives home and creeps up on Elvira from behind and kills her with a hammer. Late that night, Jane bundles up Elvira's body, loads it into the car, and drives off to dispose of it.

Edwin, somewhat drunk, is brought to the door by the police as a prowler suspect. They leave Edwin when Jane says he has an appointment with her. Edwin demands his promised advance. Upstairs, hearing voices, Blanche manages to untie herself and knock over a bedside table in a frantic effort to attract help. Hearing the sound of the crash, Edwin rushes up to investigate. At the sight of the haggard, helpless Blanche, he flees in horror from the house. Jane fears that Edwin will contact the police, so under the cover of darkness she drives Blanche to a nearby beach.

Jane: (running after Flagg as he flees the house) Edwin, you forgot your money!

As morning comes, dozens of people begin to arrive at the beach. A radio report and newspaper headlines reveal that the police have initiated a search for the once-famous sisters after the body of Elvira was discovered. While lying on the beach in the blazing sun, the slowly dying Blanche confesses the secret she has held for 25 years: It was she, Blanche, who had tried to run over Jane outside of their house. However Jane saw the oncoming car and moved out the way just in time. Blanche slammed into the entrance gates, snapping her spine. Jane was too drunk to realize what had happened, and has believed she was responsible for the accident ever since, something Blanche had never denied. Jane says, "You mean, all this time we could've been friends?"

Jane goes off to a snack stand to buy ice cream cones for the two of them. Two policeman at the food stand recognize Jane and run after her. Soon, when the policemen catch Jane, a crowd gathers around her. The now completely deranged Jane begins to entertain them with a song-and-dance routine as they watch, giving her the attention she so desperately craves. The policemen ask her the whereabouts of Blanche: "Won't you show us where she is, please?" "Won't you take us to her? Please, Ms. Hudson." The film ends with a long shot of the beach. The police spot the limp body of Blanche and run over to her, leaving Jane happily dancing within a circle of onlookers.

WHAT EVER HAPPENED TO BABY JANE? is an American drama film based on the 1962 novel of the same name by Henry Farrell. It's a macabre masterpiece of casting, directing, and performing. The idea of putting these two stars in the same picture was a stroke of genius on the part of director Robert Aldrich. He made a film that is both claustrophobic in its set pieces and one that uses the black and white photography to great advantage. Bette Davis' and Joan Crawford's careers had fallen on hard times, and the two detested each other. The film really succeeds, however, because of Bette Davis. She blows Joan Crawford out of the water in this movie, although to be fair Davis had the best role. Her garish appearance and screeching voice deliver chills, and her progressive decline into insanity is shocking and absolutely convincing. Davis was nominated for an Academy Award for her portrayal of Jane Hudson, and Crawford was infuriated for being overlooked. She contacted the Best Actress nominees who were unable to attend the ceremonies and offered to accept the award on their behalf should they win. When Anne Bancroft was declared the winner for THE MIRACLE WORKER (1962), Crawford triumphantly pushed her way past Davis saying "Step aside!", and swept onstage to pick up the Oscar. Davis later commented, "It would have meant a million more dollars to our film if I had won. Joan was thrilled I hadn't."

The film was a massive success. With a budget of $980,000 it grossed $9 million at the worldwide box office and $5 million in rentals. It's success led to other projects featuring psychotic women, directed and/or produced by Aldrich, including HUSH...HUSH, SWEET CHARLOTTE (1965) and WHAT EVER HAPPENED TO AUNT ALICE (1969). The original novel has a much darker and macabre tone than the film. Jane has dark brown hair dyed slightly red, whereas Blanche is described as "the blonde girl with the sooty eyes". The maid Elvira is named Edna in the novel, and half of the scenes are set in the late evening or night, whereas most of the scenes in the film are set in the daytime.

The cast also includes: Wesley Addy (Marty Mc Donald), Marjorie Bennett (Dehlia Flagg), Bert Freed (Ben Golden), William Aldrich (Lunch counter assistant at beach), Russ Conway Police Officer), Maxine Cooper (Bank teller), Robert Cornthwaite (Dr. Shelby), Michael Fox (Motorcycle cop at beach), Barbara Merrill (Liza Bates), Don Ross, James Seay (Police Officer), John Shay, Jon Shepodd, Peter Virgo, Bobs Watson (Clerk in Newspaper Classified Ad Department), Debbie Burton (Singing Voice), and Ernest Anderson (Ernie, Ice Cream Vendor at Beach). Frank De Vol composed the original music with Sidney Cutner and Ruby Raksin. Lukas Heller wrote the screenplay based on Henry Farrell's novel. Robert Aldrich produced and directed.

Warner Brothers has reissued WHAT EVER HAPPENED TO BABY JANE? in a special 2-disc DVD edition. The film has excellent picture and sound quality, and there are plenty of extras. A new documentary entitled "Bette and Joan: Blind Ambition" features interviews with various film scholars and biographers, including drag artist/playwright John "Lypsinka" Epperson, and actor/playwright Charles Busch. Epperson and Busch provide a lot of witty and interesting anecdotes concerning the film. The other features include the Turner documentary "All About Bette", hosted by Jodie Foster, and a segment from "The Andy Williams Show" featuring Davis singing "Whatever Happened to Baby Jane?". There are also "Star Profile: Joan Crawford", an interview for British TV filmed at the time Crawford was filming BERSERK (1967), and a short feature entitled "Behind the scenes of Baby Jane", made during the filming. The film was remade in 1991 as a TV movie starring real-life sisters Vanessa and Lynn Redgrave, with Lynn Redgrave in the malevolent title role and Vanessa as Blanche. In 2003, the character of Baby Jane Hudson was ranked #44 on the American Film Institute's list of the 50 Best Villains of American Cinema.

Blog Archive